The biggest GT3 race of the year took place this past weekend at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. Spa is one of the most historic tracks in Europe, with 4.35 miles of asphalt twisting up, over, and around the Ardennes Forest. The first Grand Prix race was held here in 1925 when the circuit was nearly double the length it is now, and it has been a fixture on the Formula One schedule since 1985. The track has been brought up to modern safety standards over the decades but is still demanding to drive, with the famed Eau Rouge section that winds uphill at high speed over a blind crest known as one of the most challenging track segments in the world.
Unlike other endurance races, the Spa 24 Hour features GT3-spec cars only, and there were 66 on the entry this year, with a plethora of works-backed teams among them. BMW had five entries in the race, with two entries apiece from ROWE Racing and Walkenhorst Motorsport, as well as a single entry from ST Racing. Of particular interest to American fans was the #34 Walkenhorst entry, which had Turner Motorsport drivers Robby Foley and Michael Dinan behind the wheel, along with works driver Jens Klingmann and Richard Heistand, who usually competes against BMW in the IMSA series here in the US. The car even wore Turner Motorsport blue and yellow colors.
Qualifying for the Spa 24 Hour features four sessions, with the fastest twenty cars put in a Super Pole shootout to determine the top twenty grid positions. The #98 ROWE Racing M4 GT3 driven by Augusto Farfus, Nick Catsburg and Nick Yelloly was the only BMW to make it into Super Pole qualifying, and Farfus put it into sixteenth with a time of 2:17.069, less than a second off the pole time of the #6 Lamborghini.
As the race progressed, the #98 BMW looked very likely to be one of the contenders for the overall race win, as did the #50 ROWE Racing BMW driven by BMW Junior team drivers Neil Verhagen, Max Hesse, and Dan Harper. The #98 was leading at the six and twelve-hour marks, and the #50 was running in second behind the #98 at the halfway point. With two hours left, the #98 was in second and the #50 was fourth.
Hopes of podium finishes for ROWE Racing came to an end for both cars in the final two hours, when both BMWs suffered tire punctures, which was a very common occurrence with several cars during the race. Both cars ended up in the top six, with the #50 ending up in fifth and the #98 in sixth, as Mercedes finished one-two. “I am unbelievably proud of our team, as we delivered another outstanding performance here at Spa,” said ROWE Racing Team Principal Hans-Peter Naundorf. “Every single team member and everyone at BMW M Motorsport worked faultlessly for the entire weekend and provided impressive confirmation of our intention to always be battling for podium spots at the major 24-hour races. One damaged tire on each car was all that prevented us from turning this aim into reality. Those were the only problems we had with our BMW M4 GT3 during the entire race weekend. They occurred at a very late stage, and we were unable to make up for lost time. That cost our crew in the #98 the chance of finishing second, and the BMW Junior Team could have finished third on its Spa debut without the tire problems.”
Among the other three M4 GT3s in the race, the #35 Walkenhorst Motorsport car driven by Henry Walkenhorst, Jörg Breuer, Theo Oeverhaus, and Don Yount had the best finish, ending up second in the Bronze class after leading the class for portions of the race. The #34 Walkenhorst car driven by Robby Foley, Michael Dinan, and Richard Heistand was also a contender in the Gold class until having to retire the car with a technical issue on Sunday morning. The ST Racing #28 M4 GT3 driven by Samantha Tan, Nick Wittmer, Harry Gottsacker and Maxime Oosten finished the 24-hour race after some challenges and finished in ninth place in the Silver class, after making up twenty-two positions during the course of the race.
The next race on the GT World Challenge Europe schedule is at the Hockenheim circuit in Germany on the weekend of September 2nd-4th. —David Haueter
[Photos courtesy SRO]